Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1124
neus, father of Meleager, offends Artemis, goddess of the hunt, by offering sacrifices to all the gods except her. As a punishment for his negligence, Artemis sends into Calydon a wild boar that ravages the land and the crops.
Althæa, embittered by the curse, refuses to pay homage to Artemis and rages against the gods. Althæa is a woman of strong will and determination. Years before, when her son Meleager was born, she had a strange dream concerning his birth. In the dream, three spinning women, the Fates, visited Althæa and promised that Meleager would have strength, good fortune, and a bounteous life, until the brand on the hearth burned completely. On hearing the last part of the prophecy, Althæa sprang from her bed, grasped the burning brand, and smothered the heat from it with her bare hands and feet. Then, to guard Meleager’s life, she hid the brand.
She also dreamed that the heatless brand burst into flame as a bud bursts into flower; with this strange phenomenon, Death came to blow charred ash from the brand into her breast, but there Love quenched the flame. The omen presaged for Althæa the security of her family; but in spite of her great pride, she was not unmindful of the lots that the gods might cast for mortals. These thoughts are in her mind as she goes to arm Meleager for the boar hunt. Never was there so strong a man of royal birth as Meleager. The Chorus, reviewing the life span of human beings, sums up this existence as a passing between a sleep and a sleep.
The warriors of Arcadia join the Calydonians in the hunt, and Meleager and Althæa discuss the qualities and characteristics of these men, among them the valiant sons of Leda, Althæa’s sister. Meleager describes Toxeus and Plexippus, Althæa’s brothers, as undoing their deeds with too much talk. Althæa counsels her son against having too great pride in earthly accomplishments and advises him to submit his soul to fate. The Chorus admonishes Meleager to follow his mother’s counsel.
Recounting the many tumultuous battles he experienced, Meleager points out to his mother that in all these frays he never saw evidence of the infallible gods to whom she and the Chorus would have him submit. neus reports the coming of the Arcadians and says that among them is a woman armed for the hunt. Although neus wishes to have this woman shown great respect because of her favor from the gods, he warns Meleager against becoming infatuated with her beauty. Althæa, recalling the prophecies of the Fates regarding Meleager’s career, adds to her husband’s warning against earthly love. Again imploring her son to give himself to fate, she tells him that he will not die as ordinary men die and that his death will be her death as well. Meleager declares his boundless love for his mother and expresses respect for her teaching. Ever faithful to Zeus, the sole determiner of things, he prepares for the hunt.
The Chorus, philosophizing on Love, sees her blind as a flame, covered by earth for hiding, and fronted by laughter to conceal the tears of desire. According to the portent of the Chorus, man and maid will go forth: the maid’s name is Fate, the man’s name is Death. The Chorus laments also the meagerness of life’s span. This futility, an evil blossom born of sea foam and blood froth, came into existence with Aphrodite, goddess of love. Before, there was joy upon the earth, but Aphrodite’s influence resulted in suffering, evil, and devastation.
In the hunt, as predicted, Meleager meets the Arcadian maiden. She is Atalanta, the virgin priest of Artemis, whom neus neglected in his sacrifices and who sent the wild boar to ravage Calydon. Atalanta invokes Artemis to favor Meleager that he might be victorious in the hunt. Meleager, confessing his love for Atalanta, is taunted by his uncles, Toxeus and Plexippus. Althæa pleads for peace among her kinsmen lest words become snakes and poison them against each other.
The hunt proceeds. According to a message sent by neus to Althæa, the expedition demands energy, courage, and hunting strategy. The boar, crazed by the chase and by the numerous wounds inflicted, charges Meleager, who with all daring and skill slays the animal, thereby ridding Calydon of its curse. Althæa offers praise to the gods. The messenger who had brought the message to Althæa adds that pride in earthly accomplishments will bring about destruction. The Chorus, chanting a song of thanksgiving to the gods, is hushed by the messenger, who orders them to change their songs to wails of pity because Toxeus and Plexippus were slain.
Althæa, lamenting the death of her brothers, finds comfort in the thought that Meleager will avenge them. The messenger questions whether her son should slay himself. When Althæa threatens him for his ambiguity, the messenger bluntly informs her that Meleager slew his uncles.
After the boar was killed, Toxeus and Plexippus requested that the head and the hide be kept as a monument in Calydon; but Meleager, enamored of Atalanta, gave her the spoils of the hunt. Pleased with this token of his devotion, Atalanta laughed. The Calydonians construed her reaction as a taunt and sought to destroy her. In furious fighting to protect the maiden, Meleager killed his uncles. Althæa recalls her brothers’ kindnesses in their childhood, anticipates her sister’s scorn for Meleager’s crime, and accepts her fate as a victim of many curses.
The Chorus, endeavoring to comfort Althæa for the loss of her brothers, is rebuked. Had Toxeus and Plexippus died in sacrifice or battle, Althæa maintains, their lives would not have been in vain; but knowing that they were slain by her son, she can never become reconciled to their deaths or to his crime.
In Meleager’s deed, caused by excessive earthly pride and undue desire for attainment, Althæa senses her error in taking the burning brand from the fire at the time of his birth. Stoically, she thrusts the brand into the fire that it might be consumed at last. Althæa suffers with torment and anguish as the Chorus describes the burning, which results in Meleager’s death after his return from the hunt.
Meleager reviews his existence without remorse and beseeches neus and Althæa not to let his name die. He describes his passing as an empty night harvest in which no man gathers fruit. Althæa dies of sorrow. Atalanta, hailing Meleager’s greatness, returns to Arcadia. neus rules alone in Calydon.
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